Intimacy and Virtuosity

When my mother was pregnant with me, on most days, if not every day, she played her LP of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D major, performed by Arthur Grumiaux and the Concertgebouw Orchestra, Amsterdam.  A genius work of classical music, and a genius performance, thus infused my pre-natal life, and, I am certain, prepared me to want the same constant company of great music in my life.
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Ripeness is All

In the epic catalogue of jazz heroes whose home is Philadelphia are the fantastic names of musicians of singular greatness, who have given the world a vivifying and revivifying legacy of invention, of craft, and of, what poet Hayden Carruth called, “the joy and agony of Improvisation”: John Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, Clifford Brown, Doc Cheatham, Stan Getz, Billy Holiday, Stanley Clarke, Sonny Fortune, Jaco Pastorius, The Brecker Brothers, Christian McBride, Bobby Timmons, Lee Morgan, James Mtume, Sun Ra, and, and, and…

…and pianist and composer Kenny Barron.
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Swaying But Not Quite Swayed Sway Machine In Concert At NMAJH

The music group The Sway Machine made its Philadelphia debut the evening of September 20, 2012, at the National Museum of American Jewish History, performing a cycle of songs titled “Hidden Melodies Revealed,” which the group describes as “a secret celebration of Rosh HaShanah.” For this Philadelphia performance, The Sway Machine was Jeremiah Lockwood (guitar, vocals, composition/storytelling), John Bollinger (drums), Stuart Bogie (tenor sax), Jordan McLean (trumpet), and Nikhil Yerawadekar (electric bass). Each of these musicians is a prolific performer and collaborator, with each other and with many another group. The group’s ‘sound’, its ideal to which it is attuned and its traditional referential of origin, is a confluence and combination of various, call them, lineages of music: Klezmer, Jewish cantorial music (Jeremiah Lockwood is the grandson of cantor Jacob Konigsberg), the music of Mali guitarist, singer, and composer Ali Farka Toure, to name just these.
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New Opera Aims to ‘Slay’ Intolerance

Slaying the DragonA new opera, Slaying the Dragon, by composer Michael Ching, with libretto by Ellen Frankel, will have its world premiere in Philadelphia at the Prince Music Theater June 7 and 9 during the national Opera America Conference, with additional performances at the Academy of Vocal Arts on June 14, 16, and 17. It will be presented by Center City Opera Theater.

More after the jump.

Based on a true story depicted in the book, Not by the Sword by Kathryn Watterson, Slaying the Dragon is about a Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan, who renounces violence and hatred because of his unlikely friendship with a rabbi and his wife. The opera is a powerful vehicle for confronting contemporary themes of tolerance, the dangers of inflammatory rhetoric and stereotyping, and the possibilities of atonement, forgiveness, and personal redemption. Both men undergo personal transformations and break from the prisons of their dark pasts. We are all too familiar today with the brutal landscape of intolerance: bullying, gay-bashing, terrorism, anti-immigrant sentiment, and flash-mobs. One way to confront and overcome these modern manifestations of intolerance is to take a contemporary and non-traditional approach-through opera, for instance.

Ellen Frankel“This opera is a powerful vehicle for confronting contemporary themes,” says Ellen Frankel, librettist for Slaying the Dragon. “Tolerance, the dangers of inflammatory rhetoric and stereotyping, and the possibilities of atonement and personal redemption.”

Although Slaying the Dragon is librettist Ellen Frankel’s first opera, she has been writing libretti for choral works for the past twelve years, working primarily with Philadelphia composer, Andrea Clearfield. In May 2000, the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony premiered Clearfield’s cantata, Women of Valor, which included two pieces by Frankel, “Sarah” and “Hannah.” In 2011, the Women’s Sacred Music Project commissioned Clearfield and Frankel to write a new movement, “Hagar,” for an adapted version of Women of Valor, which was performed in September 2011 at a Philadelphia abbey and synagogue.

In 2005, Philadelphia’s prestigious Mendelssohn Club Choir commissioned Clearfield to write a new oratorio; Frankel wrote the libretto. The resulting work, The Golem Psalms, inspired by the ancient Jewish legend of the Golem, premiered at the University of Pennsylvania in May 2006, performed by the Mendelssohn Club and the Philadelphia Chamber Orchestra, with Sanford Sylvan as baritone soloist, and has also been performed at Haverford College, Indiana University, and at Verizon Hall in the Kimmel Center. Frankel and Clearfield have signed agreements with Center City Opera Theater to develop a full-length opera based on the legend of the Golem, as part of CCOT’s Creative Development Projects.

The Five Books of MiriamJPS Illustrated Children's BibleThe Encylopedia of Jewish SymbolsThe Classic Tales: 4000 Years of Jewish LoreDr. Frankel is the author of ten published books, including The Classic Tales: 4,000 Years of Jewish Lore, The Encyclopedia of Jewish Symbols, The Encyclopedia of Jewish Symbols, The Five Books Of Miriam and JPS Illustrated Children’s Bible, which won the 2009 National Jewish Book Award. She served for eighteen years as the Editor in Chief and CEO of The Jewish Publication Society, the oldest and only nondenominational, non-profit publisher of Jewish works in English, and was named its first Editor Emerita upon her retirement in 2009.

Michael ChingIn writing the music for Slaying the Dragon, composer Michael Ching counters intolerance through the joy of music, bringing together a range of lively, eclectic, and wide-ranging styles. For his score, Ching drew from a variety of musical genres and sources-Yiddish folk songs, Vietnamese children’s songs, Jewish sacred music, Aryan rock, Broadway, and country-western tunes. Slaying the Dragon is Ching’s third full length opera.

Slaying the Dragon is the latest work to emerge from Center City Opera Theater’s Creative Development Projects, an ongoing series of new opera works that are brought from inception to fully-staged premieres. During the two-year development process, workshops for Slaying the Dragon included a libretto reading in June 2011, music workshops in September 2011 as a part of the Philadelphia Live Arts Fringe Festival and a second music workshop in January 2012, plus staged workshops in February 2012.

Southern Jewish Memories

— by Hannah Lee

Already 38 years in print, Eli N. Evans’s The Provincials: A Personal History of Jews in the South has garnered high praise by the late Israeli statesman and author, Abba Eban, who wrote of Evans: “the Jews of the South have found their poet laureate.”  Humbly identifying himself as “the grandson of a peddler,” Evans began his lecture at The National Museum of American Jewish History on October 16th by noting that being raised as a Southerner and a Jew were unique experiences that shaped his sense of self and of home.  In describing his boyhood in Durham, North Carolina, he said “I grew up like every other Southern boy– with a bicycle in the neighborhood and football, basketball, and picking honeysuckle in the spring.”
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Leni Riefenstahl, Hitler’s Filmmaker, Arrested in Philadelphia

–by Henrik Eger

A beautiful young woman, clutching her film reel like a Torah, is fighting to defend her work against an arresting American officer in occupied Austria in 1946. Reluctantly, with a pistol in her face, she hands over the canister. Then, in a demanding voice, she says, “Cut! We’ll do it again.”

Playing Leni, by David Robson and John Stanton, directed by the innovative Seth Reichgott, and produced by Madhouse Theater Company at the Adrienne Theater in Philadelphia, looks at the manipulations of Leni Riefenstahl, the Führer’s most influential filmmaker, her many propaganda films, and her denial that she glorified the Nazi Empire, numbing millions to the horrors to come.

More after the jump.

Doyenne of Denial

Playing Leni centers around Riefenstahl vehemently rejecting any accusations that her heroic propaganda films contributed to the Third Reich and the Holocaust.

During the play, the audiences witness an excerpt from Riefenstahl’s original film Tiefland (Lowland) with Gypsies as Spanish peasant extras. The soldier tries to get Riefenstahl to confess that the actors were from a forced labor camp and that she made a contract with the SS to hire them, despite knowing that most of them would end up murdered in Auschwitz shortly after the shooting.

Riefenstahl, doyenne of denial, claims that she still maintains a wonderful correspondence with many of them. However, the soldier tries to tear down her web of fabrication: “All of those extras have been exterminated!”

Riefenstahl shrugs off the accusation, “I am a director, not a casting agent.” The soldier, unimpressed, pushes on: “What did you know about the systematic murders of Jews, homosexuals, Gypsies-?”  The woman who was closer to Hitler and Goebbels than anyone outside the Nazi hierarchy, renounces all accusation of involvement, adamantly declaring, “This won’t be in my film or any film!”

Cat-and-Mouse Games

Audiences of Riefenstahl’s works, like Triumph of the Will or the two famous 1936 Olympic films, may not have realized that they got played and sucked into toxic, persuasive propaganda.

Similarly, Frau Riefenstahl, the mistress of power and control (compellingly portrayed by Amanda Grove), goes all out to seduce the arresting U.S. soldier (the multi-talented Robert DaPonte) by playing Leni, browbeating him-and the audience-into submission: “No Leni, no movie,” and, “This is my story and my arrest!  So stop screwing around with B-movie shit!”

She manages to turn her brief incarceration into a scene where she coaxes the American officer into acting various parts, forcing him to play her role while interacting with Goebbels. She even manages to get him to play a German officer who kills prisoners in Poland while she films the scene.

The soldier, unwillingly dragged into Riefenstahl’s cat-and-mouse game, tries to turn the situation to his advantage by working on her script as his ruse to get her cooperation and to reveal information before the Nuremberg trials.

Just when the soldier thinks he has caught her in his trap, confronting her with the impact of her films on countless lives, she brushes him off: “Life is too short for regrets.”

“First Rule of the Interrogation: Don’t Joke About the Jews”

The soldier, modeled on Budd Schulberg, the writer who actually arrested and interrogated Riefenstahl, reveals himself as Jewish. The stubborn anti-Semite, who clearly has not learned anything, ridicules him. He then warns her, “First rule of the interrogation: Don’t joke about the Jews.”

In an almost Pavlovian fashion, Riefenstahl declares that she has nothing against anyone, “as far as I’m concerned, people are all the same.” Yet, she uses euphemisms to avoid the term “Jews.”  The interrogator has to beat it out of her before, referencing Hitler, she admits to prejudices against, “people unlike himself.” The U.S. soldier spells it out for her, “Jews you mean.”

Apparently unaware of the presence of a significant Jewish community in Los Angeles, Hitler’s filmmaker dreams of making movies in Hollywood-the height of chutzpah. The soldier reacts sardonically, “I’m not sure the Jews on Rodeo Drive have gotten past it yet.”  The audience roared with delight.

A Thorny Issue

My friend and guest, Stefanie Seltzer, president of the World Federation of Jewish Child Survivors of the Holocaust (WFJCSH), did not laugh.  The Riefenstahl play had brought back many painful memories of her childhood in occupied Poland.  

Going by the derisive laughter in the theater, often directed at Leni, I wasn’t sure whether the audience went home feeling enlightened or merely entertained by schadenfreude, whether they saw Riefenstahl as the “Inglorious Bitch” akin to Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds-or whether they went home in self-reflection.

“We Are the Same, You and I”

Playing Leni, the drama about the power-hungry filmmaker willing to walk over bodies, encourages the American audience to discover not only some of the inner workings of a Third Reich mind, but also our own: “You’re doing this for you!  We are the same you and I,” asserts Riefenstahl.

Through the American soldier and the German filmmaker, we may recognize our own ambiguities in the pursuit of happiness.  As Robson puts it, Riefenstahl was “an opportunist extraordinaire. Life is full of people willing to do anything to become famous. Where does the conscience go in all that?”

Entering the theater, Riefenstahl’s The Triumph of the Will fills the screen.  Leaving the theater, where we had just witnessed the unbearable Riefenstahl, did we look critically at the triumph of the will-within ourselves?


HENRIK EGER, Professor of English and Communication, DCCC, Media, PA.  Ph.D. University of Illinois at Chicago (1991). Member: Board of Directors, Theatre Ariel, the Jewish theatre of Philadelphia.  Philadelphia correspondent of All About Jewish Theatre (AAJT) and YouTube producer-writer: AAJT–The World’s Largest Secular Synagogue and Open University http://www.youtube.com/watch?v… Playwright of Jewish life and people, seen from a German perspective. For a detailed description, click here: http://www.pdc1.org/memberprof…

CONTACT: henrikeger@gmail.com, http://www.henrikeger.com

The Future of Holocaust Memorialization: Altruism in Extremes

— Arthur Shostak

As before since an Act of the Knesset in 1951 we will again on the 27th day of Nisan (May 1, Sunday) mark Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Day). A large crowd will gather on the Parkway in front of the first public monument erected in America to memorialize the 6 million Jews whose lives were taken between 1938 and 1945. With speeches, songs, and solemn ceremony we will honor a rapidly dwindling group of grey-hair direct survivors.

More after the jump.
 
All of this warranted homage not notwithstanding, the subject can actually be likened to a Third Rail of modern Jewish thought: we have learned since giving it a name in the 1960s that it is “charged” with power (in this case, negative emotional power). Given our druthers, we prefer to have as little to do with it as possible. Indeed, its connotations are so dark and foreboding that many parents shield their children as long as possible from any mention of it.

In November 2010, I used the Internet to reach 134 Jewish-Americans who, at my request, provided me with the 5 words they associated with then Holocaust in general, and concentration camps in particular. Most often mentioned among the 670 words – and arranged here in alphabetical order – were these five: death, horrifying, inhuman, pain, and sad. Cited three or more times were such words as Atrocity, barbaric, brutality, death, degrading, evil, family, fear, gas, genocide, Hitler, horrifying, inhuman, loss, Nazis, pain, sad, starvation, suffering, terrifying, torture, tragedy, tragic, unbelievable, unforgivable, and unthinkable.

American Jewish men and women, to judge very cautiously from this small and non-scientific sample, think of the Destruction (also known as the Shoah) as something “uniquely horrific and horrifyingly unique.” (Markle, 26) The subject “evokes perceptions of fear and despair, persecution and suffering.” Indeed, we derive much of our contemporary language of catastrophe ” from the Nazi destruction of the Jews.” (Doneson, 3)

To be sure, among the word associations there were a few positive terms; e.g., courage, educational, endurance, faith, family, heroism, hope, love, real, resilience, resistance, sacrifice, and survival. However, these made up only two percent of the total. All the more surprising, therefore, is the use made of many such words in nearly all of the 115 memoirs and scores of oral histories I consulted in my on-going study of the matter.

Breaking with Convention. My own list departs considerably, as it includes five brow-arching words (listed alphabetically) not included in it – the words Caring, Cooperation, Pathological, Unforgivable, and Vindication – three of which obviously warrant clarification.

Caring? Yes, as some Jewish prisoners in German occupied territories, in the ghettos, and in Annihilation Centers and slave labor concentration camps dared to try to help care for one another – even though this was strictly forbidden, at pain of punishment unto death. I call this stealth altruism, the secret and forbidden sharing of care in the Lager, and explore it in depth hereafter.

Cooperation? Yes, as some such prisoners bonded in informal care sharing groups (as by language, locale, nationality, politics, or religion); despite extraordinary pressure on them to go it alone, and even sell out

Vindication? Yes, as many such prisoners set out to prove they would and could resist dehumanization forced on them by the Nazis, and this helped vindicate their pre-camp faith in themselves and in others.

Holocaust/Concentration Camp word association lists (perhaps yours) commonly focus only on horrendous things done to the “Other”, what I hereafter join colleagues and commentators in calling the Horror. My list takes this into account, but goes on to also recognize what I call the Help, namely, ways in which some victims tried to share care and scarce resources (done for one another) at personal sacrifice and high risk of torture and death. My focus is on stealth altruism, a scarce, though nonetheless consequential behavior in which all of Jewry (and our Gentile friends) can take pride, a type of empathetic outreach we would do well to emulate.

Done to … done for … very different terms, each focusing on a different actor (the first, the Nazis; the second, their Jewish prisoners). They emphasize different behavior (the first, Nazi cruelty and punishment; the second, Jewish prisoner support of one another, even at personal cost and peril). Conventional lists and 60-plus years of Holocaust memorialization focus on ” done to the Other,” what I call the Nazi Story, one of unforgettable and unforgivable murder. My list goes beyond it to also include what I call the Jewish Story, or the provision by some Jewish prisoners of forbidden help (done for one another), as guided often by Judaism’s emphasis on mutual responsibility (we are our brother/sister’s “keeper” ).

In the concentration camps, stealth altruism ranged across a diverse and large continuum. At one end it involved such actions as outlawed hidden gestures (nods and smiles), which risked crippling beatings. At the other end, prisoners took forbidden in-the-open risks to try to save lives; e.g., Labor Camp, Winter, 1945: “We [ women] had to constantly keep a watchful eye on everyone [in the work crew] , especially the very young and old … Many had reached a point of lost hope … They simply stopped working [at digging anti-tank ditches in the frozen soil], sat down on the ground, and froze to death …We continuously attempted to provide [forbidden] encouragement and strengthen spirits … ….” (Farkas, 55) This sort of “done for one another” caring mixed commitment, compassion, and courage – in full knowledge of vulnerability to death from unpredictable SS actions.

Asked why such experiences in the camps had not embittered him, a survivor explained – “I learned about friendship in Auschwitz. When I was cold, strangers shielded me with their bodies from the blowing winds, for they had nothing else to offer but themselves.” (Lustig, in Eliach, 107). That shield, and 101 “done for … “counterparts, helped secure still another day, and thereby physically and spiritually aided otherwise unbearable lives.

The Nazi Story – our long-standing preoccupation – does not help us frame the kind of questions that allow us to ” make the human connections … [questions] which lie at the root of all purposeful inquiry. [It leaves] the repetitive cruelties, the blank anguish of pain and despair, indecipherable.” (Clendinnen, 3) We can and must move beyond it.

With like-minded others I worry that a Judaism ” preoccupied with death and destruction [the Nazi Story] is in danger of substituting a cult of martyrdom for the Torah’ s insistence on Life.” (Freedman, 344) Life-promoting done for material warrants more attention than ever in a new Holocaust Narrative. For much as in the case of our relationship as Jews to the Bible, so also as regards the Destruction – “… every generation is
expected to bring forth new understanding and new realization.” (Heschel, In the very near future the last of the direct survivors (and perpetrators) of the 1933-1946 Holocaust will pass away. In the aftermath we will inherit responsibility for shaping a fresh telling of the greatest crime of the 20th century, a persuasive re-telling that should lend a special meaning to 21st century life. We could break with memorialization tradition and adopt a new approach, one that emphasizes not the Horror of Nazi insanity, but instead the Help that victims shared with one another. Were we to do so Jews here and elsewhere would finally understand how very much we have to be proud of in the record of our co-religionists in extremis.

Background. As a pre-teen in the early 1950s I began a lifelong practice of seeking out autobiographies of survivors and novels that could help me understand what had happened in an abattoir almost beyond belief.

Unimaginable atrocities shook me to my roots, but I dwelled instead on rare accounts, as of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, of efforts made to stay human under conditions in extremes.

Likewise, years later, on my second visit to the U.S. Holocaust Museum, I found myself drawn more to a temporary exhibit in the lobby (“Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race”) than to permanent museum material (such as the Tower of Photos, the empty railroad car, the audio-visuals desks, etc.). It emphasized ways to help improve medical ethics, while also noting horrendous related Nazi crimes. A judicious balance of reform ideas along with a scathing condemnation of unforgivable acts, the exhibit gave me hope progress might soon be made in this medical matter.

In the summers of 2005, 2006, and 2010 my lifelong interest here had my wife, Lynn Seng, and I visit six European concentration camps: Auschwitz-Birkenau, Dachau, Mauthausen, Plaszow, Ravensbruck, and Theresienstadt (Terezen) – the “model” Nazi concentration camp to which we went twice. Over the years we have also gone to several new and old Holocaust Museums here (including the newest such museum in Skokie, Illiniois)and abroad (Britain, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany), to the new Holocaust History Museum at Yad Vashem (which I have visited seven times since 1971), and numerous war memorials in nearly a dozen European Out of Balance. I was left troubled by something I found everywhere over-represented. This crystallized when during a two-week East European tour in the summer of 2006 we became increasingly uneasy with the narrative shared by an American-born senior Professor of Holocaust Studies.

His tour, which included remnants of the Warsaw Ghetto, Schindler’s factory, the Holocaust Memorial in Budapest, and two concentration camps, featured graphic stories galore of Nazi atrocities. No examples were ever shared of victims nevertheless trying to care for one another.

Nowadays, when I remember a Holocaust Museum or concentration camp exhibit hall, I recall five educational themes of very different weight: 60 percent or so of the material graphically documents unspeakable, gruesome crimes (executions, murder, torture, etc.). We gasp, recoil, and even avert our eyes. Fifteen percent or so explores slightly less horrific material, such as vandalized shops, schools, or synagogues. Ten percent or so explores the post-liberation lives of survivors (reunited families, newborn children, etc.), and another ten percent or so looks back on a pre-Holocaust bucolic scene of (false) security in pre-Hitler Europe. Perhaps five percent or less allows for the possibility that some of the victims may have struggled to keep in touch with their humanity. The covert creation of networks of mutual support under German occupation, in the ghettos, and in the camps, gets short shrift, if it gets any attention at all.

Rachel Korazim, director of Education at Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust memorial museum, puts the matter quite well – “We’ve managed to place images like barbed wire and crematoria as central Jewish images.

This is not Jewish history, this is Nazi history.” (Silverman) Is the current preoccupation with evil the only, or even the best approach – given the challenge we have to help keep the narrative consequential? Is a Holocaust memorialization strong in evil-focused motifs still our wisest course? Might a new balance of Horror and Help favor greater appreciation of the narrative?

In the Camps. Testimony to our will to stay human is available from Terezin, a “model” concentration camp that was actually a transport center to the death camps. Doomed teenagers there nevertheless created a literary magazine despite knowing any day they might see their registration number posted for transport east to the gas chambers. Their essays dealt with a wide range of subjects, from A to Z, except for the immediate plight of both writers and readers: Emphasis was put instead on matters that might help lift the spirit, rather than bruise it all the more.

Likewise, adult prisoners created a remarkable “university.” Over three years, the “school” had 520 lecturers (of whom only 173 survived) offer over 2,400 courses for hundreds of starving ghetto dwellers who might be transported at any time to their death. (Makarova, et. al.)

Emanuel Hermann, an adult student (who did not survive), wrote: “Cultural life in the ghetto was the only phenomenon that transformed us back into human beings. If after a hard day I could listen to Bach, I at once became human.” (Makarova, et. al.)

My Gentile guide at Terezin had a friend who had been there: “She tells me she got up at 5am to attend lectures. They were very secret and were held all over the village. She thinks the Gestapo knew and didn’t care [as all were under death sentence anyway], though all such activities were forbidden, and people could be hurt at any time.”

Yehuda Bauer, an Israeli Emeritus Professor of Holocaust Studies, notes that “even in these [horrific] conditions, literature, music, theater, and art flourished. And, still today, the musical pieces, poetry, and plays made at Terezin continue to be heard around the world. … We must not only remember them, which is a cheap and superficial cliché – we must learn from them.” (Makarova, et. al.).

Felix Posen, a philanthropist who sponsored a book-length account of the “university over the abyss,” thinks it “beyond comprehension and language to explain how, in the face of starvation, disease, and death there continued to be the desire to lecture on the great issues of mankind; create artistic, literary, philosophical, musical, and other gems for the benefit of those still barely alive and those who might possibly survive their living hell … [This] is a proud, perhaps unique legacy … [one] which will continue to live long after mankind will barely remember hundreds of years from now at what terrible cost it was created.” (Makarova, et. al.)

Remarkable movies of actual camp experiences also help illuminate what Good can mean in the face of Evil. (Insdorf) A film version of Imre Kertesz’s semi-autobiographical novel, Fateless, has a young camp-savvy prisoner selflessly chose to mentor a 14-year old newcomer in life-saving skills. The boy and other non-observant Jews later look on admiringly from their bunker beds as four old men risk all by clandestinely marking the Sabbath. Likewise, characters in Stephen Spielberg’s film, Schindler’s List (especially “Isaac Stern,” the accountant) risk their lives to help keep 1,100 other prisoners alive. (Romano 2006).

Especially revealing is a Cable TV film, Out of the Ashes, the true story of Dr. Giselle Perl, a Jewish female doctor forced in Auschwitz to work for Dr. Josef Mengele. She helped infirmary patients recover, even knowing they might be killed later that same day. Risking her own life, she secretly moved about the camp at night to perform abortions on about 1,000 otherwise-doomed prisoners (pregnancy was against Nazi rules), and, in some few cases, smother their newborns – an act of mutual aid en extremis.

The film’s depiction of her efforts to stay human remains with a viewer long after it has ended, for as Dr. Perl explains to confounded American immigration authorities weighing her admission in 1946 to the USA – “Auschwitz was another country.”

The maintenance of moral values … the matter of dignity and humanity … the possibility of an uplifting journey … these are the sort of topics whose neglect has left me troubled. These are what seemed under-valued and under-represented. I agree here with Harvard Professor Ruth Wisse, who fled Europe as a child in the late 1930s. She doubts the soundness of building an identity alone or even primarily on victimization: “A community otherwise so ignorant of its sources that it becomes preoccupied with death and destruction is in danger of substituting a cult of martyrdom for the Torah’s insistence on life.” (Freedman)


One Survivor’s Tale. I learned more about all of this from a recent writing project I never expected to have as part of my life. In 2005 I was fortunate enough to make the acquaintance near my Narberth, Pennsylvania, home of an elderly East European survivor, Henry Skorr. Over the next several months I tape-recorded 60 hours of his life history in Kalisz, Poland, and later, in Siberia. (During that time the Spielberg camera crew filmed two sessions with him.) With help from Ivan Sokolov, a graduate student who recorded and transcribed far more hours than I, and Ann Weiss, another Holocaust writer, we saw the project through to its 2006 publication as a remarkable 384-page autobiography, Through Blood and Tears: Surviving Hitler and Stalin.

Quick to deny singularity, Skorr insists each person in his book, only some of whom “bested the evil that attempted to destroy us, endured equally as horrific, sensational, and sometimes uplifting journeys”. A total stranger, for example, hid him under her large skirt when German soldiers suddenly searched a train station in which they sat.

Later this older Jewish woman shared what little food and money she had to help him make his escape, explaining with a smile he needed it more than she did. A Jewish blacksmith took his little brother under his protection when they were all captives, and, defying a German officer, saved the boy’s life when Skorr could not do so. Over and again Henry details “uplifting” situations of mutual aid given at peril of life.

On November 9, 1939, for example, at considerable risk, Skorr’s father, a popular kosher butcher hastily rushed a gang of local Jewish gangsters to a small town bordering on Germany. There, under his leadership, they rescued German Jews who had arrived earlier that day fleeing from the “Kristallnacht” pogrom, only to find themselves then seriously threatened by Nazi-allied Polish townspeople. Skorr’s mother, in turn, regularly sheltered and fed dazed and distraught Jewish refugees, although her own large family had less and less. Many of their besieged neighbors (though by no means all) warned one another about surprise Nazi sweeps of households, and in other high-risk ways, desperately sought to remain neighborly.

Skorr himself, after barely escaping from a Nazi death squad, made his way in shock and despair to a precarious safety in Russia – only to almost immediately turn around and, to the astonishment of all he encountered, retrace his steps back home. Once there, he took charge at age 17, gathered family and neighbors together, and led them from Poland to (relative) safety in the harsh lumber camps of Soviet Russia. His story, as assessed by his publisher, Sir Martin Gilbert, a Holocaust historian, is not only about “courage and survival, but also of the maintenance of moral values in the face of Nazism’s perverse determination to humiliate and degrade the Jews and force them to lose all dignity and humanity.”

Finding a Balance. It is time the dark and complex puzzle we know as the Holocaust included aspects under-valued in present-day telling, aspects of a narrative that would highlights deeds worth emulation. We need to pay attention to what enabled besieged men and women, like Henry Skorr, Primo Levi. Eli Wiesel, and others, to maintain their moral values, dignity, and humanity? What combination of hope, integrity, morality, and strength enabled some to survive long after others had given up? What enabled some to trump their circumstance and defy a destructive script written for them by their Nazi captors?

An effort to establish a new balance of Good and Evil in recounting the Story will have opposition. For one thing, many concerned parties insist on staying focused on atrocities, the better to keep the flame of outrage burning. They identify the Holocaust exclusively with unmentionable horrors, and their preoccupation with abominations allows no room for any other consideration. Second, soupy homilies and airy platitudes might be advanced in place of confounding complexities. We must avoid characterizations of victims that are overly heroic. Finally, there are those who will always believe the enormity of the Holocaust overshadows any effort we might attempt to reframe it. They contend it should not be used instrumentally even if to promote the admirable cause of mutual care and This opposition notwithstanding, we can and should revise Holocaust educational and exhibit material. More attention should be paid to the efforts victims made to hold onto their humanity despite the depravity inflicted upon them. Scattered, out-of-sight, and often hard to secure evidence of fundamental goodness merits fresh exploration, this time in a creative and nuanced way. (My new book is rich in examples).

In the last analysis, strategies of memorialization are transitory and incomplete. As there is no “copyright” on ways the Holocaust will be remembered, we have room to re-assess where we chose to place our emphasis. To date we have under-valued how some men and women who suffered hardship struggled to overcome adversity. It is time we experimented with a re-balancing of the entire narrative – a re-balancing that might uniquely help meet critical 21st century spiritual needs of Jews and non-Jews alike.

In this way we can demonstrate anew our potential to help shape a finer future for ourselves and our progeny, a refutation of the Nazi insistence that only some (themselves) and not all of us have this awesome power and responsibility. Re-balancing the way we memorialize the Holocaust can help pass along a history that honors its 13 million-plus victims as never before, and promotes a future that honors us all.

References

  • Romano, Carlin. 2006. “Is the Crematorium Half-Filled or Half Empty?” Chronicle of Higher Education, September 22: B13.
  •  Shostak, Arthur B. 2007. “Humanist Sociology and Holocaust memorialization: On Accenting the Positive.” Humanity & Society, Vol. 31. February. Pp. 43-64.


About the author: Art Shostak, Emeritus Professor of Sociology at Drexel University, retired in 2005 after 42 years of enjoying himself sharing ideas in such courses as Futuristics, Social Change and Social Planning, Social Problems, and others. He authored, edited, or co-edited 34 books and over 160 articles. He is currently finishing a book entitled Stealth Altruism: Jewish Care in Nazi Camps. He welcomes ideas and material for it, and can be reached at arthurshostak@gmail.com.

Gei Oni, a film review


Gei Oni, directed by Dan Wolman
(2010, 105 minutes, Hebrew, Yiddish, and Arabic with English subtitles)

— Ben Burrows

Gei Oni, a film by Israeli producer-director Dan Wolman, was shown this weekend at Drexel University as part of the Philadelphia Israeli Film Festival. Wolman introduced the film, and took questions afterward. A film of light or darkness, of wide expanses or of tightly enclosed spaces, the cinematography is gorgeous, and focuses the audience on its major characters, Fania and Yechiel, with its deceptively simple visual palette. Fania arrives in Jaffa from late 19th century Russia with her baby daughter in tow, accompanied by Shuvale Mandelstam, who may be her husband, but later claims to be her uncle. They are fleeing the Russian pogrom, which killed Fania’s parents, and which has driven her brother Lolik mad and silenced. They are surprised when their relative in Jerusalem has not come to meet them at the port, and Shuvale travels to Jerusalem — only to find his relative, a newspaper editor, has fallen on hard times — so the new immigrants must rely on the charity of strangers. While Fania waits for Shuvale to return, she meets Yechiel, a recently widowed local farmer with two children from his previous marriage. Yechiel is clearly stricken by Fania’s beauty, although he must know she possesses few household skills, when she causes a small explosion while lighting a lantern near the hotel where she waits for Shuvale to return. A marriage is quickly arranged and celebrated, but there is a dark secret which prevents Fania from consummating the relationship. She tells Yechiel that she still mourns the death of her daughter’s father. Yechiel decides to accept her reluctance for the time being, and accepts responsibility to support her brother Lolik. Shuvale retires from the scene, and the new family returns to Yechiel’s village of Jauni.

More after the jump.
Wolman admitted during questioning to a number of interests in making this movie, from the novel Gei Oni by Shulamit Lapid. He wanted to portray a time when Jews actually purchased land from their Arab neighbors. He was interested in the positive romantic aspects of the novel, and did not include Yechiel’s death from malaria or Fania’s remarriage, as dramatic over-complications. He wanted to portray the different Jewish, Syrian Christian, and Arab Muslim cultures coexisting uncomfortably, with different levels of communication layered by the different practical experiences of male and female experience. As I watched the story unfold, I could not help but see parallels between the story of Fania and Yechiel with the stories of Sarah and Avraham. For so long as they pretended that Sarah was Avraham’s sister, the patriarchal couple brought plague to the land of Egypt, where they were sojourning. For so long as Fania kept her secret shame from Yechiel, one misfortune after another befalls the little settlement of Jauni. The Zionist and Biblical patriarchal couples seem equally distant to the modern eye, and both situations are resolved by a return to the Land, the Divine provision of additional people and resources, and the discovery of their mutual love for one another. By the final scene, Yechiel and Fania have brought new life into the world, and the village has begun to produce wheat from their rocky and difficult terrain.

Gei Oni is celebrated as an early feminist Israeli novel. The Jewish Women’s Archive describes Lapid’s Fania and her place in Israeli literature:

After several collections of short stories, Lapid first gained readers’ attention with her popular novel, … , which was the first Israeli book to be labelled “feminist.” Its feminism is, however, displaced, the action taking place in Palestine of the 1890s, thereby establishing a precedent in Israeli fiction for masking feminist protest by historical distancing. Framed in a narrative about first-settlers struggling with a harsh motherland, in a culture that kept gender roles distinct and separate, Lapid’s heroine, Fania, stands out in her attempt to cross boundaries. She is both mother and merchant, venturing out on the road alone, even defending herself against armed Arab horsemen when attacked.

The author had a life of her own, and made a family with Tommy Lapid, of blessed memory. Tommy Lapid was a member of the Knesset, and a champion of secular Shinui Party, which fought the influence of haredi restrictions into everyday Israeli life. Later in life, Tommy Lapid directed Yad VaShem: Preserving the Past to Ensure the Future.

Gei Oni had a difficult time finding distribution in Israel, despite Wolman’s extensive oeuvre, and his track record at attracting audiences. After being rejected multiple times, Wolman at last found a distributor willing to show his film. When Wolman saw the terms of his contract however, he saw that he might never be paid a cent, after the costs of the distributor (never enumerated) were subtracted off the top. When Wolman asked for a more specific enumeration of costs, or for an estimate of audience head count which might be required to achieve some payback, none was forthcoming. It was then that Wolman decided to arrange for his own private distribution of the film, at theaters who had shown his films in the past. He wrote and emailed everyone he could, and urged his friends to see the film in the first two weeks, explaining his predicament. The guerrilla distribution plan worked, and the film’s success in Israel has brought the film here to Philadelphia.

“36 Letters, One Family’s Story” by Joan Sohn

— Book review by Ben Burrows

It was a chilly windy Sunday. My wife and I had just spent four hours on the top two floors of the new National Museum of Jewish American History on Independence Mall, reviewing artifacts like a deerskin frontier Torah, relearning timelines of Jewish settlement in Philadelphia, New Orleans, South Carolina and Florida. It was a lot of material to take in and to keep straight. It was in some ways a relief to drive down towards the Franklin Parkway, to attend the book launch I had committed to review for the Philadelphia Jewish Voice, for a very different and much more personal sort of history, at The Jewish Publication Society.

Joan SohnJust finding a place to sit down was something of a relief. Rabbi Barry Schwartz of The Jewish Publication Society, which published Joan Sohn’s 36 Letters, One Family’s Story, gave a brief introduction to JPS’s decision to publish this family history. Rabbi Andrea Merow, currently of Beth Sholom Synagogue in Elkins Park, spoke of Temple Sholom’s involvement with the Korman family where she had earlier held the pulpit, and the dedication of its chapel to Sohn’s great-grandfather Rabbi Binyamin Korman. She spoke of her friendship with Sohn and her encouragement for elaborating the family story.

Then Joan Sohn herself was introduced, to present a brief outline of her delightful, focused yet whimsical history of her grandparents’ romance — of their immigration estrangement while Chaim came to New York, and of Yente’s arrival to live first with her uncle’s Philadelphia family, and of their joyous reunion and marriage when Chaim came from New York and established
himself in the community.

More after the jump.
But a publication launch, even with personal conversations with the relatives who knew the couple Yetta and Hyman as the matriarch and patriarch of their family, is not enough to communicate the warmth and love, the schmaltz, the krupnik and kugel recipes, the sheer passion of two Jews, each the children of classical Jewish scholars, who chanced to meet, who fell in love, who convinced their families to approve a long-distance match. Unlike my experience at the museum, where we hurried through two floors of American Jewish history in four hours, 36 Letters is a book to linger over, which I read eagerly for almost three weeks, despite its length, just under 120 pages.

At the most fundamental level, this is a story of discovery. As Sohn explains in her introduction, her parents (Sarah and Barney Moss) went to organize family items from Hyman Korman’s apartment, when he passed away in 1970. At the time, a box of portraits, documents and letters were packed away for her Uncle Sam, but remained at the Moss home unopened. Then, in 1996, Sam Korman too passed away. It was then that Sohn was invited to look through the materials for her own family keepsakes. Looking at the portraits, she was able to guess that the photographs were those of her grandparents.

Curious about the letters, she asked her parents, to see if they knew what they were about, but they were unfamiliar. Apparently, Hyman had never explained their significance. A family friend, Elyce Teitleman, located a translator, Mark Alsher, and Sohn’s parents underwrote the translation which began Sohn’s journey.


What she found was so much more than the photographs and letters. What she found was the autobiographical love story of the author’s grandparents, and it reads well – with aching absence, with a parting for the New World, with the delight of recognition and caring, with the anticipation of reunion, with the consummation, and the success of a life’s work together. On quite another level, this is a love story of the author, rediscovering her grandparents as young adults, and falling in love with them as valued friends. On still another level, it is a self-discovery by Joan Sohn, moved now from Melrose Park to Toronto, of how much she shared with her grandparents, and yet how different their experiences, in their very different migrations.

Sohn does not hesitate to give the reader background, from world history, from family history, from family recipes, in prefaces, in footnotes, in illustrations, in marginal notes. The experience of reading this book brought me back to my experience reading Martin Gardner’s The Annotated Alice – one of the favorite texts of my young adulthood — where an apparently simple children’s story was revealed for its complex secrets and internal references. Sohn has provided the same sort of illustrations, annotations, and background, lovingly compiled for the reader to understand the world of 1905, and the burgeoning universe that opened for Hyman and Yetta in the wonderland of the New World. I can only hope that you will linger as I did, and make friends with Joan Sohn’s grandparents, and share their love and their success.

All photographs, courtesy of Joan Sohn, with permission.

POTUS Expert Dr. Harold Kirsh at National Liberty Museum

Dr. Kirsh with paintings of the presidents playing cards; on his left were Andrew Jackson, Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Bill Clinton, and Jimmy Carter, and to his right were Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Richard Nixon, Dwight Eisenhower, and George Bush I and II.John Oliver Mason

Dr. Harold Kirsh spoke at the National Liberty Museum about his new book Thank You, America: A Pictorial and Anecdotal History of the United States.

Describing himself as politically in the center, Kirsh displayed beside him on the podium paintings of the presidents playing cards; on his left were Andrew Jackson, Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Bill Clinton, and Jimmy Carter, and to his right were Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Richard Nixon, Dwight Eisenhower, and George Bush I and II.

After his discussion, Kirsh sold and autographed copies of the book.

More after the jump including a preview of the chapter on POTUS #1 George Washington.
Dr. Harold Hirsh and his book Thank You, AmericaKirsh explained:

This book is a complete history of the United States, based on using the presidents as the main characters (in) a play that takes place in a theater of American history that occurs each week over of a year. The forty-four presidents are reviewed, from Washington through Obama. It’s a history of the United States based, however, on the presidents as the chief character (of a play)… and based on the factors that helped mold their character, the influences they had on them as young people, the influences of their mothers, fathers, and grandparents, teachers, clergy, events, and locale, to make them the kind of people that they were when they became presidents –‘As the twig is bent, so grows the tree.’

I found out (that) by doing that for all forty-four presidents, I understood that if you’re going to vote for a presidential candidate the next time,  you needn’t see if he was a mayor, governor, or congressperson, you look back to see how he was as a young person. In all of us, the character we have as young people remains as our core values. If you’re satisfied with voting on the basis of that, you’re pretty well assured you’re going to get (someone) who’s honest, trustworthy, who has the proper purposes, who may or may not have faith, but you’ll know what you’re getting.

And then, I take it all the way through their campaigns and their inaugural addresses and what they promised they would do, and then I’d look into their biography to see those factors. I take it all the way through to whatever they did to their demise, while the next president is waiting behind the scenes ready to come out. All the facts are there, (but) it’s presented fictionally, as though my wife and I attend a theater each week; when the curtain goes up, you see the setting the country is in at that particular time in history, (and) you see the president come on the stage.

Kirsh, 87, was born in South Philadelphia. And his family moved to Collingswood, New Jersey in his childhood. He studied undergraduate at Temple University and then at the Osteopathic Medical School, interned in Missouri, and then opened his practice in Cherry Hill, New Jersey: “I was the first doctor to practice in that town,” he recalls, “and I practiced there for thirty years, and delivered about a thousand babies, did general practice, and helped established the first hospital there as well. I was also instrumental in developing Rutgers South Jersey College of Medicine branch in Strafford, New Jersey.” Kirsh has four children, seven grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.

In 1976, Kirsh moved to North Palm Beach, Florida, where he established another medial practice and later became chief of staff at a nearby hospital; two years later, he helped organize another hospital, Wellington Regional Medical Center, and became chairman of its board.

Witnessing the funeral of Presidents Reagan, Kennedy, and Ford, said Kirsh, “I decided how fortunate I was that my wife and I, both born of the first generation from immigrant parents, (were) born that way, as American citizens.” Kirsh decided “to visit a few of the museums to say thanks to each of the presidents for what they did.”

Kirsh and his wife drove from their home in Florida and toured the country visiting sites related the presidents; “I drove 14,000 miles,” he recalled, “I visited 110 museums, met presidents and advisors to presidents, archivists in some of the museums, and got a whole insight into the presidency and American history. I kept notes, bought all kinds of books…I saw American history geographically, but I really wanted to know it chronologically, I wanted a timeline.” In his writing, said Kirsh, “I said, I have the makings of a book that can be called, ‘Thank you, America.’ That is how it came about.”  

Excerpt from Thank You, America: A Pictorial and Anecdotal History of the United States